Hollywood's hatred of big business is a rebel legacy
Americans can really relate to films where all authority is depicted as evil, writes Carl Mortishead
Published 29/12/2009 | 05:00
IF YOU are a parent, you will, over the next week or two, probably take the kids to see 'Avatar', this year's Christmas Hollywood blockbuster.
Unless you are very young, like my son (aged 10), for whom it was "the best movie ever", you will probably wear the 3D goggles, enjoy the spectacle and let the plot wash over you.
However, beneath the popcorn layer, 'Avatar' has a curious message. The film tells us that big business is sinister and in league with a malevolent state.
For the benefit of anyone recently stuck in a Highland croft without electricity, 'Avatar' is a fairytale about the invasion by a mining company of a jungle-cloaked planet inhabited by beautiful, blue-skinned aliens. Scantily clad (something for Mum and Dad here), they live in perfect harmony with the forest, with which they communicate by plugging their tails, which look like fibre-optic cables, into organic USB ports in trees and animals. Unfortunately, the corporation wants a strange floating metal that lies beneath the aliens' sacred tree. The hero, a US marine-turned-mercenary, is sent to infiltrate the tribe and learn their secrets. You can guess what happens next.
It is Hollywood fare and that is the point. Scores of recent Tinseltown dramas tell us that big business is up to no good -- in league with, if not in control of, government and the guiding mind in a military-industrial machine that will destroy the world. Most recently, we had 'Syriana', a film about an evil oil company, and the 'Terminator' series, in which robots invented by a company, Cyberdyne Systems, take over the world. The precursor was 'Blade Runner', in which Tyrrell Corporation rules a police-state America with high-tech tyranny. Before that, Charlton Heston fought a corporation that recycled humans into food in 'Soylent Green'.
These are American movies, not satires made by Yankee-baiting foreigners. In the dream factory, the enemy is no longer Nazis or Commies, organised crime or bug-eyed monsters, it is big business. And if big studios are making movies about sinister corporations in league with the government, it is because Americans lap them up. The movies are not made for mad hermits in Montana, but for suburbanites. The dystopian plots support a powerful urban myth, a view of the world that says much about where Americans came from and why so many Americans fear entrenched and established authority.
In American movies, the hero is a loyal soldier who turns rebel, such as Ripley, the heroine of the 'Alien' series, who is betrayed by Weylan-Yutani, the mining company that employs her, or the soldier hero in 'Avatar', who sleeps with the enemy and then turns his gun on former comrades.
Every American child knows that a rebel army won the United States its independence from Britain. That may explain why a story about rebels at war with a remote authority pulls in the crowds. What is curious is that corporations have taken on the guise of chief demon.
It may be because America was made by private capital and not by imperial diktat. Joint-stock companies laid thousands of miles of railroad across the prairies, turning dusty cowtowns into cities. In hot pursuit of the railroad capitalists came the lawyers. The stock market provided the funds to develop the Wild West, but lawyers drew up the rules. They carved up virgin land for sale, registered legal title (while ignoring aboriginal title) and created civic institutions. Demand was so great that in 1890 the American west had almost twice as many lawyers per head as the rest of the country.
Private companies developed America's hinterland and, if it became civilised, it was because lawyers followed the money. It is no accident that stories about heroic lawyers "fighting the system" are another Hollywood favourite, films such as 'Erin Brockovich', the true story of a small-town lawyer fighting for citizens poisoned by a utility company.
But what sustains the myths are the people who tell the stories and those who listen to them. Most of these Americans are related to people who quit Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. From our own famine to Russian pogroms, the European emigre's experience of government was almost universally bad, frequently sinister and at times murderous. Most of the Americans who queue to see movies about lone rebels at war with evil corporations need no subtitles to understand what is really going on.
Not every American has European skin. For African-Americans, the story is very different. Instead of a flight from oppression to an "empty" land of promise, their story is one of enslavement and a continuing search for liberation and redress. For non-Europeans, the virgin land is unattractive. What attracts are cities full of laws, regulations that prohibit discrimination and government schemes that support employment and affirmative action. For African-Americans and many non-European ethnic minorities, big government and the expanding arm of the state are a vital support.
For minorities, big corporations are the next best thing to big government. They are the first to embrace regulation and, like governments or armies, they have transparent hierarchies of rank and promotion. In Washington, a man of mixed African-European descent is now in charge. It is not clear which American mythology inspires Barack Obama, but it is unlikely to be the same stories that inspired previous American presidents. In his brief time in office, he is seen to be in favour of extending the arm of the state, from establishing universal healthcare to more military force to suppress rebels in Afghanistan.
Beyond Washington, the ethnic composition of America continues to change and the proportion of Europeans is in decline. We do not see that yet reflected on cinema screens, but, in due course, we surely will. (© The Times, London)